Some ancient wines not even mildly intoxicating. Others were intoxicating.

Firstly: nobody is disputing that alcoholic wines existed (but non-fortified). Yet here is some of the evidence why anybody who wished to avoid all alcoholic wine was able to avoid this type in Biblical times.

…the Roman writer Cato, in his treatise On Agriculture, gave this prescription: ‘If you wish to keep new wine sweet the whole year round, put new wine in a jar, cover the stopper with pitch, place the jar in a fishpond, take it out after the thirtieth day; you will have sweet wine all the year round.’ The ancients knew if somebody wanted to get intoxicated, then the sweetest wines were very unsuitable.

Cato, On Agriculture, Section 120.

What are the traditional reasons for mixing water with wines? Not all reasons relate to alcohol.

Various old writers (religious and non-religious) mentioned a mixture. It is a subtle mistake to jump to the conclusion that alcohol was the sole reason why they mixed water with wine. We do know multiple reasons existed. Therefore, nobody should assume their mixtures sufficiently prove all mixed wines had to be without exception intoxicating – even mildly.

Some reasons applied to both types of wine, and some to one or the other:

1. Reconstituted wine: very sweet thick syrups and boiled wines existed – as indicated by Aristotle, Columella, etc. Chemists tell us a very high sugar concentration is one of several ways fermentation is prevented. These syrups needed to be reconstituted before drinking (else they would be much too sweet to drink) but this reason does not refer to intoxicating potency. Aristotle said that Arcadian wine ‘is so dried up in its skins by the smoke that you scrape it to drink.’ Of course, hot water is better than cold water to help dissolve thick syrups the most readily. Homer wrote of a sweet fragrant very concentrated wine: ‘I also took a goatskin of sweet black wine which had been given me … sweet wine, unblended, and of the most exquisite flavour… when he drank it he mixed twenty parts of water to one of wine…’

Aristotle, Meteorology, Book 4.

Homer, Odyssey, Book 9.

Hippocrates (Regimen on Accute Diseases, part 10., cited by Athenaeus 1.56) ‘Sweet wine is less calculated to make the head heavy, and it takes less hold of the mind, and passes through the bowels easier than other wine.’

2. Raisin wine: Raisins were kept to boil with water. Naturally, this beverage could be produced on any day of the year (unfermented if desired). It has been popular for Jewish use at Passover. Roman women were permitted passum wine from raisins, though they were forbidden other wine.

Polybius, Histories, Fragments 4.6.2. ‘Among the Romans women are forbidden to drink wine; and they drink what is called passum, which is made from raisins, and tastes very like the sweet wine of Aegosthena or Crete.’

Exodus 12:15, Young’s Literal Translation. ‘Seven days ye eat unleavened things; only — in the first day ye cause leaven to cease out of your houses; for any one eating anything fermented from the first day till the seventh day, even that person hath been cut off from Israel.’

Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1859, Passover. ‘The rabbins would seem to have interpreted the command respecting ferment as extending to wine as well as to the bread of the passover. The modern Jews, accordingly, generally use raisin wine, after the injunction of the rabbins.’

Encyclopedia of World Cultures, 1996, Karaites, ‘Passover is a very central holiday for Egyptian Karaites because it serves as an allegory for their own historical exodus from Egypt. During the Passover seder, or meal, which is only held one night, the Karaites read from their own Haggadah that retells the story of the hasty departure of the Jews from Egypt in biblical times. Instead of wine, they drink a homemade grape juice from red, seedless raisins because they say that the juice would not have had an opportunity to ferment, and they eat bitter herbs and lamb. During Passover week, Karaites refrain from eating leavened bread, anything derived from soaked grains, or food prepared outside of the home.’

3. Tradition and symbolism: a tradition existed to add water (with the fruit of the vine for Christian communion). Some old writers suggest these two things together signified the water and blood which flowed from Christ when His side was pierced (John 19:34). It became an Orthodox sacramental tradition to add some boiling water. (Why boiling water? See other points.)

Justin Martyr, First Apology, Ch. 65, Administration of the Sacraments. He notes a tradition of these together.

‘But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.’ (John 19:34) This verse was cited at the Quinisext Council, 692, Canon 32.

Cyprian [200-258 AD], Epistle 62, Sacrament of the Cup of the Lord. He notes mingling these as ‘the people is made one with Christ.’

Someone later repeated this same symbolism (like what Cyprian had noted): ‘people are understood by the water, but in the wine the blood of Christ is shown.’ This symbolism was applied (even) when ‘grapes be squeezed into the chalice and water mixed in.’ (Cum Omne Crimen) The juice was immediately called wine. (It was preferred to filter out the seeds.)

4. Purifying water – not by alcohol: boiling water is a well-known way to help destroy germs within the water. As for wine, recent experiments have shown wine’s purification effect on water was not by means of alcohol, but by other components within wine. ‘The antiseptic power of wine is no myth. Since it cannot depend on alcohol alone-in fact it persists when the alcohol is removed [i.e. by heating it] …’ [Majno p. 187] ‘The 9-11 percent concentrations of ethyl alcohol in ordinary wines [i.e. non-fortified wines] have very little effect on bacteria.’ [Majno p. 186] ‘… the antiseptic properties of wine depend on [pigments] components other than alcohol.’ [Majno p. 48]

Guido Majno, 1991, The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World.

Ancient Roman soldiers added posca to water to avoid dysentery outbreaks. This was vinegar, not alcoholic wine.

See more details about water purity: Seven Bogus Remedies! Alcohol BAD for what ails you.

Celsus described how oil and wine were used (compare Samaritan in Luke 10:34) when binding wounds of patients, and he was far from recommending they drink. He said ‘abstinence from wine for a long time’ would rather help their healing process! Celsus, On Medicine, 8.8.1, 8.10.7.

5. Frugality: Somebody who purchased any beverage may mix it with water to make it go further.

6. Dishonesty: A dishonest storekeeper may dilute beverages without telling the customers.

7. Unwanted alcohol: If a wine were alcoholic, then its intoxicating potency may be reduced by dilution with cold water. Yet it is more effective to heat the wine. Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so if alcohol were present, heating would remove it more readily than the water content. Nevertheless, as shown above, the removal of alcohol is certainly not the sole potential reason for heating wine (nor for heating the added water). Ancient peoples, though wanting to drink, at least distained the madness of Scythians who drank it without sufficient water. Records show the earliest Christians had yet higher standards than both of these in many respects*.

*‘teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. Speak these things, exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no one despise you.’

Titus 2:12-15, NKJV.

Fortified wines were not yet produced.

Sometimes spices were mixed with wine, which would not concern intoxication. At other times, people mixed drugs with wine to make it worse than alcoholic.

We know that the danger of intoxication existed for some types; alcoholic wines did exist. Today’s fortified wines are much stronger and of course were not available during Biblical times. The medieval period is the culprit.* At a certain concentration, alcohol itself inhibits fermentation — i.e. it prevents sugar being converted into alcohol. Distilled alcohol (now used to fortify wines) was not available for a thousand years after the Bible was completed. But most significantly, we also know other ancient wines were not even mildly intoxicating.

*‘As far as we know alcoholic distillation was invented … about 1100.’

Robert J. Forbes, 1970, A Short History of the Art of Distillation: From the Beginnings Up to the Death of Cellier Blumenthal, p. 87.

*‘Commercial distillation of brandy from wine originated in the 16th century.’

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Brandy’.

‘The wild or indigenous yeast is allowed to do its thing. This is called spontaneous fermentation.’ ‘Many wild types of yeast are unable to perform once alcohol levels reach 6%.’ ‘When wild yeast begins to ferment, it often begins to shut down at 3 or 4% alcohol.’ [Specially developed strains of yeasts surpass 6%, but they certainly cannot achieve the levels of alcohol made possible by the invention of distillation.]

Jeff Chorniak, Oct./Nov. 2005, Wine Maker, Wild Yeast: The Pros and Cons of Spontaneous Fermentation.

Accidental fermentation was preventable.

Ancient writers show it was known how to preserve wine without any fermentation at all. They show this unfermented wine was amongst the produce available in all seasons.

In ancient times, an old type of pasteurization and sulphur-based additives helped to prevent alcoholic wine going sour and these same treatments done sooner helped prevent the wine from even fermenting at all. The Jews described boiled or pasteurized wines as ‘mevushal’ wines. If other factors be equal, the wines with greatest sugar content kept best — but if the sugar began to be converted into alcohol, then the wine soured more readily.

‘Alcohol [i.e. reduced sugar] is volatile in non-fortified wines and causes wine to turn to vinegar more quickly. Generally speaking, the lower the alcohol level in a non-fortified wine the longer it will last… Despite the fact that high alcohol ruins normal still wines, fortified wines [unless dry] are perhaps the longest lived of all wines with 17-20% ABV.’

Madeline Puckett, 20 April 2012, ‘4 Traits of Wines That Age Well,’ Wine Folly.

‘When making wine with wild yeast, no SO2 [sulphur dioxide] is added to the must.’ [Conversely, this demonstrates a means of preventing fermentation.]

Jeff Chorniak, Oct./Nov. 2005, Wine Maker, Wild Yeast: The Pros and Cons of Spontaneous Fermentation.

‘Nor do they put new wine into old wineskins, or else the wineskins break, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. But they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.’

Matthew 9:17, NKJV.

Old skins with small cracks became impossible to seal reliably. New clean wineskins prevented accidental fermentation; they were not intended to contain enormous pressure! The expression ‘burst like new wineskins’ (Job 32:19 NKJV) means somebody was careless about ensuring a new skin was clean from contamination; the new skin did not inflate intentionally!

Not all ancient wines were equal: some wines were ‘without any mixture of alcohol’.

Barnes says: ‘The common wine of Judea [clearly some of these] was the pure juice of the grape, without any mixture of alcohol, and was harmless. It was the common drink of the people, and did not tend to produce intoxication.’

Albert Barnes, 1832, Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, John 2:11.

Nott says: ‘that unintoxicating wines existed from remote antiquity, and were held in high esteem by the wise and the good, there can be no reasonable doubt. The evidence is unequivocal and plenary. Not indeed that the wines in use in Syria or the Holy Land were universally, or even generally, unintoxicating… We know that then, as now, inebriety existed … Still, unintoxicating wines existed, and there were men who preferred such wines, and who have left on record the avowal of such preference.’

Eliphalet Nott, 1863, Lectures on Biblical Temperance, p. 85.

In Numbers 6:3, Nazarites are to have neither wine nor ‘fermented wine’. Therefore, the first meaning of wine is not fermented! Easton’s Bible Dictionary says that ‘in Heb. hamets, properly “ferment.” In Num. 6:3, “vinegar of wine” is more correctly “fermented wine.”’

Easton’s Bible Dictionary, Leaven.

‘My eyes fail with tears, My heart is troubled; My bile is poured on the ground Because of the destruction of the daughter of my people, Because the children and the infants [i.e. KJV ‘sucklings’ not even weaned] faint in the streets of the city. They say to their mothers, “Where is grain and [yayin] wine?”’ Are we to suppose that the caring mothers in ancient Jerusalem gave ALCOHOLIC wine to infants? I surely don’t think so! But it was indeed called wine the instant it was squeezed from grapes.

Lamentations 2:11-12, NKJV.

Wine was called wine the instant it was squeezed from grapes: ‘Joy and gladness are taken from the plentiful field and from the land of Moab; I have caused [yayin] wine to fail from the winepresses; no one will tread with joyous shouting—not joyous shouting!’

Jeremiah 48:33, NKJV.

The meaning of Hebrew yayin is not limited to alcoholic wine: ‘When does [yayin] wine belonging to a gentile become forbidden? When the grapes have been crushed and the wine begins to flow, even though it has not descended into the cistern and is still in the wine press, it is forbidden. For this reason, we do not crush grapes together with a gentile in a wine press, lest he touch it with his hand and offer it as a libation.’

Sefer Kedushah, MaAchalot Assurot, Ch. 11, Halacha 11.

Note: Concerning alcohol, Paul greatly encouraged Timothy to continue to ‘always be [nepho] sober’ NRSV, ‘be sober in all things’ NASB, ‘keep your head in all situations’ NIV (2 Tim. 4:5). It is used likewise in 1 Thess. 5:6,8, etc. Nepho means ‘to be free from the influence of intoxicants’ (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words). No Jew and no Gentile would persuade Timothy otherwise even for a moment, since alcoholic [oinos] wine causes spiritual drowsiness (not just bodily drowsiness). I understand that Timothy had initially foregone even non-alcoholic [oinos] wine too (1 Tim. 5:23) – though it does not make the head heavy (see Athenaeus) – because he did not wish to give Jewish brethren a wrong impression that a little idolatry is tolerable (Rom. 14:20-21; 1 Cor. 10:28-29). In Zvi Pesach Frank’s view (cited by Rabbi Chaim Jachter), even leniency for a mevushal (boiled) wine cannot apply if a company producing it is owned by Gentiles. Presumably, it was Gentiles who produced wines wherever the Jews were dispersed as a minority group amongst them. Still, Timothy thought about others before he thought about his own health. It is evident Tertullian (c. 160-220 A.D.) did not think the remedy in 1 Tim. 5:23 meant so-called ‘medicinal alcohol’. Rather, he knew that if Timothy had initially abstained only from (alcoholic) wine, [as per Rom. 13:13-14; Gal. 5:21,24], then doing so, Tertullian said, ‘would rather have been beneficial to his stomach’ (Tertullian, On Fasting, Chapter 9. From Fasts Absolute Tertullian Comes to Partial Ones and Xerophagies).

Athenaeus: ‘Let him take sweet wine, either mixed with water or warmed, especially that kind called protropos, the [glukus] sweet from Lesbos, as being good for the stomach; for sweet [oinos] wine does not make the head heavy.’ Notice this it ‘does not make the head heavy’ i.e. it does not produce drowsiness (unlike alcohol which is a depressant). Some wines were alcoholic, but here Athenaeus calls a non-alcoholic juice wine.

Athenaeus, ‘Deipnosophistae’, 2.

‘if there is any sharp wine I excommunicate it, but I drink the good.’

John of Lycopolis, c. 395 A.D., ‘The Lusiac History’, Ch. 35, John of Lycopolis.

‘“Give,” therefore, “your wine to those that are in sorrow,” [Prov. 31:6] not that wine which produces drunkenness, plots against the senses, and destroys the body [Prov. 23:29-35], but such as gladdens the heart, the wine which the Prophet recommends when he says: “Wine maketh glad the heart of man.” [Psalm 104:15]’

Gregory of Nyssa, 330-395 A.D.

‘…he who has devoted and offered himself to the Lord shall not take of the fruits of the plant of evil, because of its natural tendency to produce intoxication and distraction of mind. For we perceive from the Scriptures two kinds of vines which were separate from each other, and were unlike. For the one is productive of immortality and righteousness; but the other of madness and insanity. The sober and joy-producing vine, from whose instructions, as from branches, there joyfully hang down clusters of graces, distilling love, is our Lord Jesus, who says expressly to the apostles, “I am the true vine, ye are the branches; and my Father is the husbandman.” [John 15:1,5] But the wild and death-bearing vine is the devil, who drops down fury and poison and wrath, as Moses relates, writing concerning him, “For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah: their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter: their wine is the poison of dragons, and the cruel venom of asps.” [Deut. 32:32] … And therefore it is ordered that a virgin shall not taste of this vine, so that she may be sober and watchful [sober and watchful, 1 Pet. 5:8] from the cares of life…’ ‘Moreover, it is not only forbidden to virgins in any way to touch those things which are made from that vine, but even such things as resemble them and are akin to them… all that produces drunkenness and distraction of mind, besides wine.

Methodius of Olympus, 311 A.D., ‘Banquet of the Ten Virgins’, Ch. 5 and 6, citing Matthew 24:42-25:13.

Conclusions:

  • Evidently, anybody who wished to avoid alcoholic wine could easily do so in Biblical times. However, nobody is disputing that alcoholic wines existed too (but non-fortified).
  • Evidently, yayin in Hebrew was either wine or fermented wine.
  • Evidently, oinos in Greek was either wine or fermented wine.
  • So when reading a passage about wine, it is valid to seek supporting evidence before hastily assuming it to be inevitably alcohol, always alcohol, and only alcohol.

See also: Bible says be sober again and again.

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